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Values-Based Spending: Spend Money, Save the World

values-based spending

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We often dismiss the effect of a single consumer’s actions. But our choices change us, and even changing one person’s world is very significant. And if you change enough of people’s worlds, you ultimately change everyone’s world. When we engage in values-based spending, we can feel good about our budget, our character, and our impact on the world. Here’s a guide to values-based spending, how to spend money, save the world.

What is Values-Based Spending?

The saying is “show me where you spend your money and time, and I’ll show you what you value.” After you have enough to provide for basic needs like shelter and food, you have some discretion over how to spend the rest. This discretion is unique and helps us to practically gauge what we ourselves value and helps others also judge what we value.

Philosophy professor John McMurtry argues that every purchasing decision is a moral choice, and that one must accept all personal, moral, and spiritual liability for all harms done due to one’s own choices. Perhaps that seems like a paralyzing amount of responsibility. Still, I think we need to be mindful of our purchases and what would happen if many people acted the way we did.

How We Judge Our Own and Others’ Values Based on Spending

If someone were to look at your bank accounts and your lifestyle, what kind of picture would emerge? I can use myself as an example.

What You Would See:What You Would Assume:
Keto and detox cookbooks next to conventional baking cookbooksconflicted eater
bike near the door, compost in the fridge, an apartment close to public transit, environmental
ginormous TVmale or low-vision
very formal wardrobe, mostly blacklawyer
21-year old car, old Ikea furniturepoor

Of course, these are not necessarily the correct interpretations, but they are possible or probable. If we take an objective look is it possible that someone might come up with a picture of yourself and your lifestyle that you like? If an objective viewer would never align your expressed values with your lifestyle, would you like to change that? Let’s work on that now.

The First Step: Define Your Values

Obviously, if you are going to use your money according to your values, first you have to know what your values are. What you might not know is that you have to winnow down these values to a max of two.

Why only two, you say? Because a value is a set of beliefs that we consider important. If we have 100 values, how important can we really consider each one? How are we going to navigate when our choices provide conflicting value judgments?

The values that we will concern ourselves with are our personal values about the people we want to be and our outward societal and environmental values that concern what we want our world to be. It sounds like a lot of values – and it can be. The important part is to winnow down to those we truly care the most about so that we don’t have to constantly make Sophie’s choices about which values to hold in the highest regard.

How to Find Your Core Personal Values

I used a list of personal values as defined by Brene Brown in her book Dare to Lead. On first pass, I resonated with belonging, community, compassion, curiosity, efficiency, family, financial stability, freedom, friendship, fun, giving back, growth, home, humility, humor, inclusion, independence, optimism, reliability, resourcefulness, and simplicity.

If I was going to divide these into groups, I would get the following.

Community: belonging, inclusion, compassion, family, friendship, giving back, inclusion

Independence: efficiency, financial stability, freedom, growth, reliability, resourcefulness

Fun: curiosity, humor, optimism

Ironically, my two biggest categories are community and independence. These are related, and sometimes clashing values in and of themselves. There’s the constant push and pull between being independent being part of a larger group. Though I appreciate fun/humor/optimism as a value, it’s not as significant as my top two values – community and independence.

How Our Values Play Out

Now we delve into what these values mean to us. For me, the book that changed my life is Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam. It describes how American culture has changed from a more community-based structure to one that is so independent that it can be depressingly lonely.

Community is vitally important to me. After reading Putnam’s book, I became a joiner. I joined a church, a bible study, various civic organizations, the personal finance community on social media, and I reached out to old friends. Most of my friendships to this day can be tied in some way to my reading this book – whether they be new or rekindled friendships. Further, I maintain strong ties to my family who all live within a 30-minute drive.

But despite the emphasis I place on community, I am fiercely independent.

In a way, my emphasis on independence and community make a lot of sense as part of my identity as a Chinese-American. Eastern cultures tend to emphasize community and American culture is all about independence. I’m a blend of the two.

How To Align Personal Values with Spending

When I look at my budget, I ensure that I’m spending on events that build my community as well as my financial independence.

In terms of community, I don’t feel bad going out to eat with friends at local restaurants, or supporting local community events. I’m not ashamed of spending on going out because this is a main value of mine.

But I balance this spending with financial independence. I still save and invest a lot. Really, if I’m not spending on these two values, I’m barely spending at all.

Find Your Core Political Values

Now let’s think about which political issues are the most important to you. Top issues in America are the economy, healthcare, COVID, crime, foreign policy, gun policy, racial and ethnic inequality, immigration, law enforcement and criminal justice, economic inequality, climate change, minimum wage, animal rights, terrorism, and abortion. Personally, my big political issues are criminal justice reform and being zero waste.

Other political values you may consider:

Self – direct and indirect damages and impact on the people closest to us and ourselves

  1. Quality
  2. Convenience
  3. Safety
  4. Health

Social – direct and indirect damages and impact on society

  1. Paying workers a fair wage
  2. Good work conditions
  3. Promotion of women and minority groups into positions of leadership

Environmental – direct and indirect damages and impact on the environment

  1. Sustainability
  2. Quality of products/Long-lasting
  3. Animal testing/factory farming/animal rights
  4. Organic
  5. Pollution and toxins in creating products

Create a Values-Based Spending Game Plan

So now that you know your values, now you have to decide how much you want your life to align with them. Some of you chipper folks are shouting 100%!!

But you have limited money (if Elon Musk is reading this, not you). And you have limited time. And you may just be starting out and don’t want to overwhelm yourself. You need time to research, to adjust your lifestyle, and to weigh your options. It’s a process, and this is a great time to start.

The Sticky Widget of Values-Based Spending

If you truly believe in your values, and you learn a lot about them, you’ll soon realize that every choice is mired in pros and cons.

Like let’s consider the choice of what to eat for lunch. You could go to the chain store or the local joint. Local seems better for the community but the chain employs a lot of people, offers lots of vegetarian options and provides a playpen for busy low-income parents. You pick local. Meat or quinoa? One is bad for the environment and the other is bad for low-income farmers. What are you going to do with the packaging that your meal comes in? It says it’s biodegradable but it won’t biodegrade in a landfill, and there are no compost bins.

Maybe you should eat at home. Should you shop at the local grocery store that has had multiple workers come down with COVID? If you choose the Asian grocery store, you would emit greenhouse gases driving there, plus they never have organic produce. There’s another grocery store but you just don’t know anything about. Isn’t it likely that it has even worse problems than the ones you know about?

Then you decide to skip lunch. It’s too much!

This is why it’s so important to pick just a few values. And it’s also important to figure out how deep you want to get into these issues. You don’t want to be paralyzed with indecision.

How Deep into Values-Based Spending Do I Have To Get?

Gay marriage and fried chicken aren’t necessarily related. But in the past, gay rights activists sought to boycott Chik-fil-a for its president’s and operating company’s political donations, as well as 243 other companies that don’t have high LGBTQ treatment scores. If you really want to hold yourself to this bar, every big company is going to have someone donating against your cause. If these are your values, it might be time to live in a yurt you made yourself out of foraged materials.

You can choose to boycott all big companies. It’s feasible, but not practical. You may have to sacrifice convenience and quality. Maybe you’re willing to do that and maybe you’re not. It’s an individual choice, but one that is up to you.

You don’t have to follow the dictates of others. You are not a bad person for drawing the line on how strictly you want to align your lifestyle to your values. You’re a real person and you understand the complicated nature of these decisions.

What if The Spending Issue Has Nothing to Do with Values or Issues?

Honestly, congratulations if your spending issue doesn’t implicate your problems. It’s also totally fine if you don’t want to take the position that you’re policing every company where you’re a consumer to ensure complete political agreement. It’s also fine to be slightly oblivious.

If, for example, your core values are fun and friendship, and your political values are abortion and gun policy, you can eat at your favorite fun and friendly salad place, without any worries about conflict.

What If There’s a Conflict in Values?

Phew – I was getting bored with the fun obliviousness! Let’s get into some good old-fashioned conflict. You identified your top core values and core political issues, specifically for running into conflict. For instance, if I see gorgeous fair-trade keto desserts that handmade by criminal justice reformer, but it’s in plastic packaging, I can’t buy it because that’s not zero waste. I mean, I do buy things in plastic packaging, but my desire for something drops precipitously if it’s in plastic packaging and it isn’t necessary – like dessert.

Zero waste is one of my top values, and for many decisions, it just means you have to buy less. Often, abstaining is the best response to meet your values. Or if you have to buy something, choose which product or company most closely aligns with your values. Overall, realize that no decision is going to be perfect. Wrestling with the issues is a process.

Do I Have to Boycott or Buycott?

Despite writing an article about conscious consumerism and spending according to your values – I admit that this is not the only way or even the best way to make your position known. You can write to your favorite companies, you can join like-minded citizen groups, you can run for office.

As a zero waste advocate, of course boycotting is integral. You can’t buy more stuff that’s going to create more waste. Even if you reduced your weekly shopping by 10 plastic bags/week, that’s 520 bags in a year, and tens of thousands of bags over a lifetime.

But it’s hard to care about the issue and not want to do more. That’s where other methods of activism come into play. Look for meetups and organizations that are making a difference in your areas of interest. Donate to charities or political campaigns that support the changes you want to see enacted. SheShouldRun is a bipartisan collective to encourage women to run for office.

What if I Get Resentful for Being the Only One Following My Values?

Others note that ‘there’s tremendous bitterness toward those who pressured Al Franken to leave the Senate in 2018… Many Democrats are sick of holding themselves to a set of standards that Republicans feel no need to try to meet…

Michelle Goldberg, New York Times

So many people tell me Democrat’s are bitter at following their values of getting rid of predatory men when they see that Republicans aren’t. It should make us all like Democrats so much more right?

If you’re bitter that you’re following your values and others aren’t, these aren’t your values. If you need others to follow your value system for it to be worth it for you to follow your own values, these aren’t your values.

Yes, it can be tough. It’s ok not to follow others’ values if they’re not yours. But if you believe in these values, then the sacrifice is worth it. If the sacrifice is not worth it, then reevaluate your values and reevaluate yourself. Virtue-signaling is a very unsatisfying endeavor. But living by your values is ultimately very satisfying.

Conclusion – Values-Based Spending

I don’t want to paralyze you with concerns about values-based spending. I want to empower you to realize that you can make a difference even on a limited income with limited time. When we start to consider the ethics of our consumer choices and how our choices affect ourselves and others, we are already making great headway into changing our budgets into values-based spending plans and changing the world through our finances.

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